Alaska’s appetite for oil is as ubiquitous as the state’s proliferating examples of a changing climate.
The Arctic is melting faster than anywhere else in the world. Permafrost is thawing and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Warmer air and ocean water have diminished sea ice. Native villages along the coast are moving inland to flee rising seas.
But climate change is a political issue. Although Alaskans may not dispute the science, they do disagree about what to do about it. After all, oil and gas makes up the vast majority of the state’s revenue. After the price of oil plummeted in recent years, oil drillers slowed production, crippling the state’s economy.
Now, amid tough economic times, three gubernatorial candidates—one Democrat and two Republicans—are challenging Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who is running for re-election.
Economics are the most important issue in the race, political observers note. And economics are tied to attitudes about climate policies. Every Alaskan is paid a per-person royalty based on the amount of oil sucked out of Alaskan soil. Residents therefore have a direct interest in continued production. This creates a steep challenge for politicians hoping to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s almost schizophrenic,” said Beth Kerttula, a Democratic former state legislator who later served as director of the National Oceans Council under President Obama. “You can see climate change immediately. ... At the same time, we have the oil industry in particular wanting to open the [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] and bringing in more development. I think that has affected our politics in ways that are just very profound.”
None of the candidates running to be Alaska’s governor opposes oil drilling in the Arctic.
To the left of Walker, Mark Begich, a former Democratic senator who jumped into the race in the eleventh hour, said his position to support oil drilling has stayed the same, adding that some environmentally sensitive places like Bristol Bay should be off-limits. On the right, Mike Dunleavy and Mead Treadwell—Republicans who will face off during next month’s primary election—have ardently supported more drilling while at times questioning human’s role in global warming.
Faced with salient examples of climate change, Walker convened a task force last year that holds regular meetings throughout the state to gather evidence. It released a draft report in April proposing climate policies, which emphasize adapting to a warming planet over mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
The task force appears to be a reincarnation of efforts launched by former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin in 2007, a year before she disavowed human-caused climate change on the presidential campaign trail. Climate hawks lament that in the decade since, actual implementation of climate policies has stalled.
In fact, the politically irreconcilable climate perspectives are even spelled out in the task force’s draft report: “The state economy is dependent on natural resource development, including oil and natural gas production,” the draft report states. “While these resources are finite and contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions, which are a root cause of climate change, they also support essential government services and as such our ability to adapt and respond.”
But beyond oil, there is not much else in Alaska to generate revenue; state lawmakers have blocked a sales tax and income tax.
Because the governor’s race is a three-way contest, the Republican nominee has an advantage as Walker and Begich are competing for many of the same voters.
“The odds are that the Republican wins,” said Mike Coumbe, a longtime conservationist and political observer. “If there was betting in Las Vegas, that’s the way the bets would be laid. There is still an open question that one of the candidates would pull out, but it seems like the egos are too high.”
The Cook Political Report calls the race a toss-up.
In an interview with E&E News, Begich stressed hardships in Alaska. He blames the current administration for failing to diversify the economy. University graduation rates are low. Crime rates are high. People are leaving the state. “We need to be better than these data points,” he said.
He further complained that the state Legislature in 2010 set a goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2025. But it is not on track to achieve that target.
As for Walker’s climate task force, Begich said: “When I was mayor of Anchorage, I did not form a task force to work on this issue. We just got busy.”
Although he supports oil drilling in the Arctic, Begich said he does not support drilling in environmentally sensitive places such as Bristol Bay. It is the “same reason I don’t support mining in Pebble mine,” he said. Pebble mine is a controversial gold mine in the Bristol Bay region in the southwest part of the state.
Begich has said over the years that Alaskan Democrats are “different.” Support for oil drilling is among the key reasons.
Eight years ago, Begich was named by the environmental group Friends of the Earth one of the “BP Ten,” for being among the 10 members of Congress who’ve received the most money from the oil company shortly after the Deepwater Horizon spill tarnished its reputation. A spokesperson at the time told E&E News: “You can’t ask for a better endorsement in Alaska than getting blasted on recycled paper by Friends of the Earth. Oil and gas companies are a major part of Alaska’s economy and employ thousands of people in our state” (Greenwire, June 18, 2010).
On the right, Dunleavy, a former state senator, is believed to be the GOP front-runner. Treadwell, a former lieutenant governor, jumped into the race at the last minute. The primary election is Aug. 21.
Dunleavy, the first to contest Walker, criticized the governor’s climate change task force at a debate last month. It “would be one thing if we were a smokestack state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, but we’re not,” he said, according to the newspaper Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. “We’re a resource development state, not a manufacturing state.”
He added: “The opportunity in Alaska is amazing. We haven’t run out of oil, haven’t run out of gas, timber, fish, gold—you name it. Yet the Lower 48 has passed us by, and we’re in a malaise. We have folks leaving the state, and [our policies] are drifting farther to the left and pushing us toward becoming a welfare state.”
Treadwell has talked about the melting Arctic but has questioned human responsibility. Seeking an endorsement in 2010 from a conservative group, he wrote: “I challenge the argument that man made CO2 emissions are causing significant global warming and I will oppose any costly new regulations that would increase unemployment, raise consumer prices and weaken the nation’s global competitiveness” (Climatewire, Aug. 26, 2010).
What’s new for this gubernatorial election is that voters are automatically registered to vote when they signed up to receive their annual dividend. Begich said he believes that will help him.
PALIN’S CLIMATE LEGACY
More than 400,000 barrels are produced in the state every day, according to the Alaska Oil & Gas Association, and shipped all over the world.
The state has largely failed to diversify its economy, and oil and gas remain the key economic drivers, explained Jerry McBeath, a retired environmental politics professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “Time after time we go back to oil,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll be depleted in the next century.”
Walker’s popularity plummeted last year after he cut the royalties from the state’s permanent fund. The fund currently doles out $1,000 to every Alaskan every year. Walker had cut the checks nearly in half to pay for government services.
Last year, shortly after President Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, Walker convened the task force to address climate change. Democratic Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, an Alaska leader of Tlingit heritage, heads the effort. Speaking at an event in Washington this spring, Mallott recalled seeing massive Alaska glaciers as a child, unable to imagine that they would not be there someday.
Mallott said the Walker administration felt a keen sense of responsibility to be engaged on climate change, “regardless of what our federal government did.”
The draft policies have emphasized adapting to sinking houses rather than mitigating global greenhouse gas emissions. The task force will present policy recommendations to the governor in September.
Kerttula said she was impressed by the work the task force was doing. “The committee is now working on specific recommendations that I know are really important, such as working with Tribes, bringing back coastal zone management, changing the Stafford Act so communities falling into the ocean can get federal help, supporting ocean observing—teaching kids about what is happening, and aggressively reducing carbon,” she wrote in an email.
Others were less enthusiastic.
“It’s good to see our state administration facilitating discussion of climate change action. But we’ve been here before,” said Polly Carr, executive director of the Alaska Center. “Alaskans have been talking about climate change since the Palin administration, with little policy and action to show for it.”
Palin’s administrative order issued in 2007 created a Climate Change Sub-Cabinet to develop recommendations on a number of issues, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, assessing impacts on vulnerable communities and exploring carbon-trading markets.
But the recommendations never went anywhere, and Palin sharply changed her tune on mainstream climate change science when she became the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008.
Fast-forward to today, and little progress has been made.
Speaking in Washington, Mallott acknowledged a common attitude in Alaska: The state’s emissions are so minor—there are only 750,000 people in the state—that it isn’t worth engaging on the issue. “To us, that is the worst kind of attitude,” he said. “Every action that we can take no matter how small is important and ultimately beneficial.”
But for the politicians running to be Alaska’s governor, that doesn’t mean oil drilling should stop.
By Kelsey Brugger
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